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Published on Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bass Reeves

U.S. Deputy Marshal

By Matthew Pizzolato


Born a slave in 1838, Bass Reeves became the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal appointed west of the Mississippi river and one of the greatest peace officers in the history of the Old West.


Bass Reeves was born to slave parents in 1838 and as was the custom of the time, took the surname of his owner, George Reeves. When the Civil War erupted, George sided with the Confederacy, made Bass his personal companion and body servant and took him along.

Bass parted company George during the war and escaped to Indian Territory, where he lived among the Seminole and Creek tribes, learning their languages. While there, Bass became very adept with both a rifle and a pistol.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, Bass left Indian Territory and settled near Van Buren, Arkansas, where he became a farmer and rancher. Sometimes, he worked as a guide for the U.S. Deputy Marshal's serving in the area. He married Nellie Jennie and raised ten children, five boys and five girls.

First Black Deputy U.S. Marshal

When Isaac C. Parker, who became known as the Hanging Judge, was appointed judge for the Federal Western District Court at Fort Smith, Arkansas on May 10, 1875, Bass Reeves was appointed as a deputy by U.S. Marshal James F. Fagan shortly thereafter.

Fagan sought out Bass because of his intimate knowledge of the area as well as his ability to speak several Native America dialects.

Bass served as a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Indian Territory for 32 years and was the only one to serve from Parker's appointment until Oklahoma's statehood. He became one of the most successful lawmen in American history, arresting more than 3,000 fugitives.

As an example of his devotion to duty, Bass brought in his own son who had been wanted for murder.

During his time as a lawman, Bass was never shot and was reported to have killed fourteen men in the line of duty.

His work as a Deputy Marshal ended in 1907 when Oklahoma was granted statehood. Bass worked for the Muskogee Oklahoma Police Department for two years until he was diagnosed with Bright's disease.

He died on January 12, 1910.


  1. Oklahoma Historical Society
  2. Legends of America

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